PresPoll Results: Historic Preservation and Affordable Housing

Housing affordability is a crisis level problem. Historic districts are not the cause of the affordability crisis but are disproportionately being affected. Preservationists feel a responsibility to lead efforts to address the issue, but are lacking a wide range of effective tools. Even current tools, like design guidelines, are not effective in mitigating the demolition of affordable housing. There is a strong feeling among preservationists that their efforts should not be limited to historic buildings, but also to long-time residents who occupy them. There is also wide recognition that it is not just architecturally significant housing that should be saved, but older housing in general, which often provides the majority of naturally occurring affordable housing (NOAH). The notion that the retention and rehabilitation of older housing stock is critical to addressing the affordability crisis is supported outside the preservation field as well, and is specifically mentioned in President Biden’s new American Jobs Plan. There are no easy answers to the housing affordability crisis. As one respondent succinctly put it, “It’s a complicated issue.” But complications aside, preservationists recognize the problem and are eager to be part of the solution.

This poll asked about the connections, if any, between historic preservation and affordable housing. Links to the survey were provided in our three Facebook pages (PlaceEconomics, Heritage Strategies International, and Donovan Rypkema) as well as on the Facebook page of Historic Preservation Professionals. Additionally, we sent a link to the survey to our international mailing list of more than 6,000. The survey was open from May 3 through May 7. Based on the responses of 196 survey participants, here are the eleven most significant findings:

  1. Housing affordability is at the crisis level in most communities. (See Question 3)
  2. While affordable housing is a challenge in most places, the larger the city the greater the problem. (See Question 3)
  3. When asked about the affordability of historic districts, nearly half (43.6%) said that historic districts were “Not Affordable” as compared to the rest of the city. (See Question 4).
  4. A large share of respondents from both large cities and small towns put historic districts in the “Not Affordable” category. (See Question 4)
  5. Older, non-designated neighborhoods came out significantly better on relative affordability, with only 18.0% saying those neighborhoods were “Not Affordable” while 24.7% identified them as “Affordable” and 7.7% “Very Affordable.” (See Question 5)
  6. When asked to identify possible connections between affordability and historic preservation, more than half (53.3%) of the respondents identified the “Lack of financial incentives and other tools that make preservation more affordable” as a key issue. (See Question 6)
  7. The idea that “Design guidelines reduce the threat of demolition of affordable housing stock” was characterized as “Largely not the case in my community” by 40.6% of respondents. (See Question 6)
  8. The most common preservation tool seen to aid affordability was “Grants for Repairs” cited by 33.3% of poll takers. (See Question 7)
  9. “Grants for Repairs” was also judged the most effective affordability tool by 73.7% of respondents. (See Question 8)
  10. Even though only 16.9% of respondents reported that their city had “Policies encouraging retention of older housing, regardless of whether designated or not,” 55.1% thought such policies would be “Very Effective” in improving affordability. (See Question 8)
  11. Almost two-thirds (62.1%) felt that preservationists should not just be addressing issues of affordability, but should be leading that effort.